It’s Christmas season and you know that means – another 184 versions of the Christmas songs that you used to love but now cringe when you hear them. In the last few years, “O Holy Night” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel”1 have proven especially popular. I have eleven of the former and a dozen of the latter, including two EPs and one CD I purchased this year that have both on them.
For all the wannabe recording artists out there, and the three current ones that haven’t already put out a Christmas album, here’s a word to the wise — the world doesn’t want another version of “Joy to the World.” Or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Or especially “Silent Night.” We’re glad you like those songs. Sing them with your family around the fire on Christmas Eve. But stop recording the nine-hundredth version of them. Instead, do something novel.
Write a new one.
It’s been done before. Those songs you keep recording weren’t handed down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, they were written by someone. Which means more can be written by someone else. You could be one of those someone else’s. It doesn’t appear to be that hard (for a songwriter, of course; it’s impossible for the rest of us) — Downhere wrote one without even trying.
With that as a lead-in, what’s on the turntable2 this Christmas?
Oh For Joy
I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about our shared love for “O Come O Come Emmanuel”3, and she mentioned one of her favorites was David Crowder’s version.
Wait, what? Crowder has a Christmas album4?
I’m not sure how I missed that, and it’s more of an EP than a full album, but it’s Crowder and band, and it has one of the great album covers in the history of album covers, so who really cares?
My rant above obviously doesn’t apply if your name is David Crowder. When your name is David Crowder, you can do whatever the heck you want musically and it will sound fantastic and fresh and maybe even supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.5 And usually all three.
Crowder’s voice and arrangements are enough to differentiate anything he sings from anything anyone else sings, and so even though the songs are all “standards,” it’s still been one of my most played albums this season. He puts some Crowderisms into almost every song (see the ending to “Joy to the World”).
“Silent Night” was recorded live, and all you hear is the band playing and the crowd singing. It’s intimate and powerful and everything “Silent Night” should be and never is. He saves the best for last, though; about two-thirds of the way through, the crowd trails off and the band kicks it up and the next thing you know there’s a hoedown in progress. “The sky is so quiet, and what a night,” Crowder sings, and if you don’t have shivers your shiverer is broke.
It ends with Crowder talking about epiphany and the band launching into a cover of TSO’s arrangement of “Carol of the Bells.” I’ve heard that not everyone loves that particular arrangement, for reasons I can’t imagine, but I do.
This one should be in everyone’s Christmas collection.
Into the Silent Night
This EP is a couple of years old, but I ran across it while purchasing “Oh for Joy”. It’s by “for KING & COUNTRY,” who apparently haven’t figured out how to work the caps lock key on their computer. It contains two original songs, “Baby Boy” and the title track. The former is a great anthem, with a soaring chorus and great lyrics — “Endless hope and relentless joy started with a baby boy.”
They also do a version of “Little Drummer Boy” that manages to stand out from the crowd. It’s hard to stand out in a field that includes Whiteheart and Audio Adrenaline, but their version has a great balance of quiet and energy.
It’s only four songs (the fifth is a live version of “Baby Boy” that differs from the other version so trivially that it’s superfluous), but all four are really good to great. Highly recommended.
Over the Rhine trilogy
I mentioned these last year, but they deserve mentioning again, because I’ve had another season of listening to them.
Over the Rhine is one of music’s best kept secrets. Linford Detweiler and Karin Berquist are a husband and wife team from the heartland (the band’s name refers to a downtown Cincinnati neighborhood) that have been making great music for twenty-five years. Their first Christmas album prompted a band member’s wife to ask, “Do they like Christmas?”
Karin calls it “Reality Christmas.” This is music for people who understand that joy doesn’t always extend to everyone during the holidays, that for many there is a struggle and mourning and sadness that permeates the days surrounding that silent and holy night.
Darknest Night of the Year is an album of many of the standards and a few Over the Rhine penned new ones; about half of the album are instrumentals. The arrangements are weighty, Karin’s singing reminds me of Karen Carpenter, not in her vocals, but in the heart-wrenching melancholy with which the latter sang even songs like “Top of the World”.
Snow Angels is all original material, which makes it a win even if it wasn’t also a great album. It begins with “All I Get For Christmas is Blue” and ends with “We’re Gonna Pull Through” and those titles tell you a lot about what’s in-between. “One Olive Jingle” is “Jingle Bells” as it’s probably heard in bars around the country around closing time in the wee hours of Christmas morning. “Here It Is” is a bit of a rocker that reminds us “the worst kind of lonely is alone in December.” All is not bleak house, though — “Darlin’ (Christmas is Coming)” notes that “the snow is falling, falling like forgiveness from the sky.”
Blood Oranges in the Snow is the newest of the trilogy, also all original material. In addition to a great title, it is probably my favorite of the three. “My father’s body lies beneath the snow,” they intone on the third song, and we are reminded of all those we miss at Christmas. “First Snowfall” is a song for writers, full of bon mots and memorable phrasing (“my soul feels as empty as a brown paper bag”) that ends with another paean to snow (sort of the anti-Fogelberg).
We’re all light-hearted lovers
We’re all beautiful beggars
We’re all innocent children
As soon as it snows
These albums are probably not to everyone’s taste. But everyone should probably listen to them, anyway, if for no other reason than to remember to look deeply into the eyes of those around us this season. All is not always calm, all is not always bright, and for many it’s not a holy night, but the darkest night of the year.
After you’ve finished listening to them, put on Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas,” crank it up to eleven, and have a Merry Christmas.
- Both with and without the comma.↩
- It’s a figure of speech for people whose lawn you should stay off of.↩
- Seriously, is there a comma or not?↩
- It’s another figure of speech for a collection of songs. Use “CD” if you prefer, but that’s just as archaic (and actually more specifically archaic) in these days of streaming. But what did I tell you about the lawn?↩
- It was in a movie once. Look it up on the interwebs.↩